"O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!" Act I, scene ii
|Tobacco Factory ; April 27, 2008 Bristol, UK|
Director : Jonathan Miller ; Starring :
Reviewed on : 2008-05-10 02:32:28 ; Reviewed by : Peter Kirwan
|The difference in affluence between theatre companies is rarely more apparent than in the foyer of Bristol’s Tobacco Factory theatre. While the RSC spends millions on its transformation project, the Tobacco Factory is asking for donations towards a simple air-conditioning system to ventilate its auditorium, a black converted factory loft with low ceilings and no air circulation. However, Sir Jonathan Miller’s production of Hamlet is a timely reminder that it’s the play, not the building around it, that matters.|
Performed in the round on a small stage, with no set but three wooden pews, no technical effects, no music and period costumes, this was an intimate production that relied entirely on its performances. At a punishing 3 hours and 45 minutes long (a near full text), it is testament to the skill of the cast that the production was never dull, and its energy increased rather than diminished as it went on.
Central to this was Jamie Ballard’s revelatory turn in the title role. Ballard’s Hamlet began moody and melancholy, dressed in black and slumped on a bench. Yet upon his assumption of his antic madness, his talent for comedy came out. Hamlet dominated the stage in the way a comedian might, with brashness and inappropriate remarks that left everyone around him disoriented and unsure of themselves, leaving him free to pursue his own course. No-one was safe – Ophelia was mercilessly taunted while watching the play, Yorick’s skull was manipulated like a ventiloquist’s doll and even Polonius’ body was mocked as Hamlet dragged it off. Yet it was a calculated humour, at once funny and deeply moving. Crucially, his eyes never smiled. Laughter was a veneer behind which sat a deeply troubled man, who occasionally broke out – his angry outburst at Guildenstern trying to play him like a flute, or his desperate scene with Ophelia, conducted with full knowledge of Polonius and Claudius’ concealed presence. It was clear throughout that Hamlet, in pursuit of vengeance, was making enormous sacrifices in love and friendships, which made his story all the more powerful.
Against this was set Claudius, in another role-defining performance. Jay Villiers played Claudius not as evil, but as a man who had made a mistake and was trying not to let that mistake – the murder of his brother – destroy everything he had gained by it. His love for Gertrude was genuine and touching throughout, marked particularly in a desperate kiss after Polonius’ death that showed their shared need to hold on to each other through the increasingly troubled events. His attempt to plead for forgiveness from Heaven was also heartfelt, and upon rising during The Mousetrap he didn’t storm off but instead stood, centrally, staring in horror at everyone around him. In many ways, one felt sympathy – he was to all intents and purposes a good king, benevolent and hardly dominant (it was Polonius who usually controlled court scenes while Claudius sat at the side with his queen). Yet his act weighed inescapably over his head.
In directing these two superb performances, Miller created a very human dynamic that took Shakespeare’s play back to basics, centring on the relationships of individual humans rather than creating new significances for them. Even “To be or not to be”, arguably the hardest line in Shakespeare, was delivered in an uncannily natural way, the throwaway beginning of a train of thought that fed into Hamlet’s development. Miller’s approach favoured believable people over types, considered development over set pieces and admirably avoided the obvious or gratuitous.
Even the smaller roles felt fully crafted. Nicholas Gadd’s Osric, for example, was on stage throughout, filling the shoes of Shakespeare’s anonymous servants. He stood in Claudius’ shadow throughout, learning from his King and growing in loyalty to the court. In his speaking scene with Hamlet, Hamlet’s mockery was particularly crude, but yet Osric bore it with a quiet dignity and contempt. This Osric had seen too much, and in his understanding of the court there was no time for this kind of humour, no place for laughter when so much was wrong. It was an uncomfortable but enlightening moment: an audience is so used to laughing at Osric, but here he was sober and admirable, another soul trying to survive in a dangerous world.
The female leads were not as strong as the male, but still good. Annabel Scholey played Ophelia quietly and sadly in earlier scenes, allowing herself to be overshadowed by the manic Hamlet. In her madness, though, she was transformed, wandering around the stage in a soiled smock, stabbing corn dolls in the chest and clutching Claudius around the legs, weeping uncontrollably. The connection between she and Hamlet was undeniable, a connection which, once broken, drove both of them to complete despair. Hamlet’s screams upon news of her death broke through all his facades. Francesca Ryan, meanwhile, gave a solid motherly Gertrude who loved her son and husband genuinely and became increasingly distressed as the two of them grew apart from her.
All of this fed into the thrilling final scene, dominated by an excellently choreographed duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Beginning as relatively civilised exchange of blows, it quickly became vicious and terrifyingly real, with audience members ducking away from wild swings. The slicing of each other’s skin angered both of them, and the duel culminated in a memorable moment where Hamlet grabbed Laertes and smashed his head against one of the theatre’s stone pillars, raising a collective gasp from the audience. As events accelerated towards their end and Laertes announced Claudius’ treachery, the pivotal moment arrived. Claudius and Hamlet faced each other, and Claudius spread his arms wide, inviting and accepting his death. Hamlet’s execution of him was swift, pressing the point of his foil into his chest. Falling to his knees, Claudius then willingly accepted and drained the poisoned cup, before crawling across the stage to hold Gertrude’s outstretched hand in death. Hamlet himself, seeing this and realising their love was genuine, moved to part their hands but then left them entwined, and placed the cup beside them as if finally accepting their union. He then looked around and realised that there was nothing remaining to his life, collapsing into Horatio’s arms and quietly passing away. In this production, there could have been no other end. Miller’s Hamlet was a play about the ultimate sacrifice in search of a greater ideal, of what it means to throw away everything you hold dear. I’ve never been fortunate enough to see a Hamlet more funny or more moving, and this production has raised the bar for the upcoming high-profile productions at the RSC and Donmar.
Sir John Gilbert, R.A.,
Hamlet in the Presence of His Father's Ghost
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